Cryptocurrency lender Celsius files for bankruptcy amid steep losses

The company is another casualty of a $2tn crash that has wiped out some of the industry’s biggest names

FILE - An advertisement for Bitcoin cryptocurrency is displayed on a street in Hong Kong, on Feb.  17, 2022.  The Bank of England warns that recent crypto-asset meltdowns that wiped out more then $2 trillion in value highlight the need for tougher financial regulations.  Britain’s central bank said Tuesday, July 5 that the crashes exposed vulnerabilities in the crypto markets reminiscent of previous bouts of financial turmoil.  (AP Photo / Kin Cheung, File)
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Cryptocurrency lender Celsius Network filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the latest casualty of a $2 trillion crash that has wiped out some of the industry’s biggest names and exposed hundreds of thousands of individual investors to steep losses.

Celsius, which has more than 100,000 creditors, said it took the step to stabilise its business and work out a restructuring for all stakeholders. The filing was done in the Southern District of New York.

The company, one of the largest cryptocurrency lenders, had amassed more than $20 billion in assets by offering interest rates as high as 18 per cent to depositors before it halted all withdrawals in June amid a panic run by clients. In its latest statement, Celsius said it has both estimated assets and liabilities anywhere between $1bn to $10bn.

Celsius’ troubles are emblematic of the problems plaguing the digital asset space, where rising US interest rates have sent investors fleeing and triggered the collapse of lenders and hedge funds.

Cryptocurrency broker Voyager Digital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this month while liquidators have been called in for bankrupt crypto hedge fund Three Arrows Capital.

Doubts about the sky-high yields backing products such as those Celsius offers have intensified after Terra’s collapse in May. Another centralised lender Babel has also halted withdrawals and crypto prices have slumped, with Bitcoin and Ether losing half of their value since the end of December.

For Celsius, its business was built on loaning cryptocurrencies borrowed from its customers to institutional investors. It was also a participant in a slew of decentralised-finance applications.

In a statement on Wednesday, Celsius said it needed to halt withdrawals as without it, an acceleration of the pull outs “would have allowed certain customers — those who were first to act — to be paid in full while leaving others behind to wait for Celsius to harvest value from illiquid or longer-term asset deployment activities before they receive a recovery”.

The move would strengthen the future of the company, Co-founder and chief executive Alex Mashinsky said.

Celsius did not respond to a request for comment.

The company has petitioned to continue to operate. It is not requesting authority to allow customer withdrawals right now, saying that claims would be handled through the Chapter 11 process.

Kirkland & Ellis is serving as legal counsel, with Centerview Partners as financial adviser and Alvarez & Marsal the restructuring adviser to Celsius.

Bankruptcy processes can take a while to resolve. Creditors of Mt. Gox, at one time the world’s biggest Bitcoin exchange that closed doors in 2014 and began liquidation proceedings, have yet to be paid.

Whether Celsius’s users will get anything is unclear. Under its terms of service, treatment of its customers’ digital assets in case of insolvency is “unsettled” and “not guaranteed,” which may result in customers being treated as unsecured creditors.

When the TerraUSD (UST) stablecoin and related Luna token collapsed in May, Celsius scrambled to pull its funds out of Terra’s Anchor Protocol, which offered 20 per cent returns on UST deposits. More recently, it suffered as another large holding — a token known as staked ETH, or stETH, which is tied to the value of Ether — became largely illiquid and more widely discounted to Ether.

In the past month, Celsius paid back all — more than $900 million — of its debt in decentralised applications Aave, Compound and MakerDAO, according to blockchain data and tracker Zapper.

The payments have raised the spectre of a legal debate on how and in what order should distressed crypto companies pay back creditors — whether they are actual people or platforms governed by computer code referred to as smart contracts.

Updated: July 14, 2022, 7:50 AM